The Rebel Angels. The Cornish Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

But of course I’m not a virgin, he said with, more arch giggling than was really called for.

And you didn’t use the right grease, said Maria. You didn’t consider what the Vestal Virgins would have at hand. Try lanolin and perhaps you’ll prove yourself a virgin after all.

No, no, I prefer to believe it is a genuine test, said Urky. I prefer to believe that you are really a virgin, dear Maria. Are you? You’re among friends, here. Are you a virgin?

This was the kind of conversation Urky loved. The bar-tending student gave a guffaw; he had a provincial look, and clearly thought he was seeing life. But Maria was not to be put in a corner.

What do you mean by virginity? she said. Virginity has been defined by one Canadian as having the body in the soul’s keeping.

Oh, if you’re going to talk about the soul, I can’t pretend to be an authority. Father Darcourt must put us straight on that.

I think the Vestals knew very well what they were doing, I said. Simple people demand simple proofs of things that aren’t at all simple. I think the writer you are talking about, Miss Theotoky, was defining chastity, which is a quality of the spirit; virginity is a physical technicality.

Oh Simon, what a Jesuit you are, said Urky. You mean that a girl can have a high old time and then say, But of course I am chaste because I had my spiritual fingers crossed ?

Chastity isn’t a peculiarly female attribute, Urky, said I.

Anyhow, I made my point with the engineers, said Maria; They have almost decided that science wasn’t invented the day they came to the University, and that maybe the ancients knew a thing or two in their fumbling way. They had a lot of tests, you know; they had a test for a wise man. Do you remember it, Professor McVarish?

I take refuge in the scholar’s disclaimer, Maria dear; it’s not my field.

If you are a wise man it is certainly your field, said Maria; They said a wise man could catch the wind in a net.

And did he grease the net?

It was a metaphor for understanding what could be felt but not seen, but of course not many people understood.

Hollier had been looking uncomfortable during this exchange, and now he rather laboriously changed the subject. It’s despic­able to attack Froats in that way; he’s a very brilliant man.

But an eccentric, said Urky. The old Turd-Skinner is un­questionably an eccentric, and you know what capital a politician can make out of attacking an eccentric.

A man of great brilliance, said Hollier, and an old friend of mine. Our work is more closely connected than a rabble-rouser like Murray Brown could ever understand. I suppose we are both trying to capture the wind in a net.


Cocktail parties always spoil my appetite for dinner: I eat too many of the dainty bits. So I went directly back to my rooms after Urky’s affair, and bought a paper on my way, to see if Murray Brown’s attack on the University was still considered to be news.

I am officially on the theological faculty at Spook but I do not live in Spook. I have rooms in Ploughwright College, which is near by, a comparatively modern building, but not in the economical, spiteful mode of modern university architecture; my rooms are in the tower over the gate, so that I can look inward to the quadrangle of Ploughwright, and also out over a consider­able stretch of our large and ragged campus.

I have no kitchen, but I have a hot-plate and a small refrigerator in my bathroom. I made myself toast and coffee and brought out a jar of honey. Not the right thing for a man begin­ning to be stout, but I have not much zeal for the modern pursuit of trimness. Food helps me to think.

Brown’s speech was reported spottily but sufficiently. I had met Murray Brown a few times during my years as a parish clergyman, before I became an academic. He was an angry man, who had turned his anger into a crusade on behalf of the poor. Thinking of the wrongs of the underprivileged, Murray Brown

could become deliciously furious, say all kinds of intemperate things, attribute mean motives to anyone who disagreed with him, and dismiss as unimportant anything he did not understand. He was detested by conservatives, and he embarrassed liberals because he was a man without intellectual scope and without fixed aims, but he was popular with enough like-minded people to get himself elected to the Provincial Legislature over and over again. He always had some hot cause or other, some iniquity to expose, and he had turned his attention to the Univer­sity. In his intellectually primitive way he was an able contro­versialist. Are we paying good money to keep fellows playing with shit and girls talking horny nonsense in classrooms? Of course we needed doctors and nurses and engineers; maybe we even needed lawyers. We needed some economists and we needed teachers. But did we need a lot of frills? Murray’s audience was sure that we did not.

Would Murray think me a frill? Indeed he would. I was a soldier who had deserted his post. Murray’s notion of a clergy­man was somebody who worked among the poor, not as efficiently, perhaps, as a trained social worker, but doing his best and doing it cheap. I don’t suppose that the notion of religion as a mode of thought and feeling that could consume the best intellectual efforts of an able man ever entered Murray’s head. But I had done my whack as the kind of parson Murray understood, and had turned to university teaching because I had become convinced, in some words Einstein was fond of, that the serious research scholar in our generally materialistic age is the only deeply religious human being. Having discovered how hard it is to save the souls of others (did I ever, in my nine years of parish work among both poor and not-so-poor, really save anybody’s soul?) I wanted to give all the time I could spare to saving my own soul, and I wanted to do work that gave me a little time for that greater work. Murray would call me selfish. But am I? I am hard at the great task with the person who lies nearest and who is most amenable to my best efforts, and perhaps by example I may persuade a few others to do the same.

Oh, endless task! One begins with no knowledge except that what one is doing is probably wrong, and that the right path is heavy with mist. When I was a hopeful youth I set myself to the Imitation of Christ, and like a fool I supposed that I must try to be like Christ in every possible detail, adjure people to do the right when I didn’t really know what the right was, and get my­self spurned and scourged as frequently as possible. Crucifixion was not a modern method of social betterment, but at least I could push for psychological crucifixion, and I did, and hung on my cross until it began to dawn on me that I was a social nuisance, and not a bit like Christ — even the tedious détraqué Christ of my immature imagination.

Little by little some rough parish work showed me what a fool I was, and I became a Muscular Christian; I was a great worker in men’s clubs, and boys’ clubs, and I said loudly that Works were what counted and that Faith could be expected to blossom in gymnasiums and craft classes. And perhaps it does, for some people, but it didn’t for me.

Gradually it came to me that the Imitation of Christ might not be a road-company performance of Christ’s Passion, with me as a pitifully badly cast actor in the principal role. Perhaps what was imitable about Christ was his firm acceptance of his destiny, and his adherence to it even when it led to shameful death. It was the wholeness of Christ that had illuminated so many millions of lives, and it was my job to seek and make manifest the wholeness of Simon Darcourt.

Not Professor the Reverend Simon Darcourt, though that splendidly titled figure had to be given his due, because the University paid him to be both reverend and a professor. The priest and the professor would function suitably if Simon Dar­court, the whole of him, lived in a serious awareness of what he was and spoke to the rest of the world from that awareness, as a priest and a professor and always as a man who was humble before God but not necessarily humble before his fellows.

This was the real Imitation of Christ, and if Thomas à Kempis didn’t like it, it was because Thomas à Kempis wasn’t Simon Darcourt. But old Thomas could be a friend. If you cannot mould yourself as you would wish, how can you expect other people to be entirely to your liking? he asked. You can’t, of course. But I had decided that the strenuous moulding of my earlier days, the prayers and austerities (there had been a short time when I went in for peas in my shoes and even flirted with a scourge, till my mother found it) and playing the Stupid Ass when I thought I was being the Suffering Servant, was nonsense. I had given up moulding myself externally and was patiently waiting to be moulded from within by my destiny.

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